With students assaulting teachers, phoning in bomb threats and joining gangs, and with none of the middle schools meeting federal benchmarks, Tony Warenzak wonders just how much character Richmond County's character education is instilling.
Since 2000, state law has required schools to integrate anti-bullying lessons and at least 27 character traits into classroom instruction. But use of the current character curriculum -- Character First!, rooted in the teachings of a Chicago-based evangelist -- has become scattershot, Richmond County schools Superintendent Dana Bedden said.
Mr. Warenzak, the proprietor of The Athenaeum bookstore on Monte Sano Avenue, is leading a drive to overhaul and reboot the program. Through his nonprofit, Augusta's Call to Character, he's in the early stages of a plan to form character committees in schools, set up adopt-a-school relationships with businesses and develop a speakers bureau to send volunteers to classrooms and student assemblies.
Based on talks with teachers, some schools are truly schools of character, Mr. Warenzak said, but with others it stops at the street with a word on a billboard. The character word for March was discretion, say signs outside several elementary schools. Next month, it will be creativity.
"There's a minimalistic attitude," Mr. Warenzak said. "For us, character is more than just a word on a marquee. It's a way of life. It's a paradigm that everybody buys into, with one voice."
Dr. Bedden, soon to enter his second school year as superintendent, has given Mr. Warenzak carte blanche to start programs in every county school, so long as principals agree to it. Mr. Warenzak began last week with a kickoff dinner at Lamar Elementary School. Guest speaker Mark Miller, the dean of Augusta State University's Hull College of Business, told an auditorium half-filled with pupils, parents and teachers that real leaders "don't just do things right, they do the right thing."
Character education at Lamar had become defunct, teachers and administrators said. Fifth-grade teacher Darlene Gaines, who's worked there almost 20 years, recalls a lot of enthusiasm after Character First! was adopted.
"Once the hype died down, so did Character First!," Ms. Gaines said.
With so much emphasis on test scores and Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, teachers started putting their white character notebooks aside, she said. Pupils aren't tested on it, so it didn't seem important.
This year, teachers didn't even get calendars for the monthly character words, Ms. Gaines said.
First-year Principal Ben Motley said he's asked Mr. Warenzak to start by working with fifth-graders bound for Tubman Middle School, which has discipline problems and is one of the worst schools in the state under No Child Left Behind standards.
Character education has come and gone in American schools since the 1890s, the last major renaissance happening in the early 1990s. At least 30 states mandate or encourage it in public schools. Georgia and South Carolina mandate it, and school systems that don't comply could lose state funding.
The goal is to promote a functioning democracy, because a democracy's survival depends on its future citizens' good judgment, said Marvin Berkowitz, a character education professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Mr. Warenzak, a former public speaking and peak performance teacher at Savannah River College, wants schools' new programs developed from the ground up, or as he puts it, "from the inside out." New sets of character words could be drawn up by school committees, making pupils and teachers more likely to stick with them.
"Change must come from in here," he told the assembly with a palm on his chest.
He said he'll also pick and choose pieces of other programs, including Los Angeles-based Character Counts!, founded by ethicist Michael Josephson.
Character Counts! has six main facets: fairness, trustworthiness, citizenship, respect, responsibility and caring. Mr. Warenzak said he probably won't use much from Character First!, which came "from the outside in."
That curriculum is based on tenets of Bill Gothard, whose Institute in Basic Life Principles oversees a religious empire that includes centers for troubled youths, a home-school curriculum, an Internet filtering program, a Christian law school, orphanages, a paramilitary academy for emergency disaster responders and a medical training center. Some Christian cult-watch groups have criticized the Rev. Gothard's doctrines as overly legalistic and authoritarian.
"I know there's a lot of attack on what I've been trying to do over the years," the Rev. Gothard said. "It's just really amazing, because so much of it's untrue. And so that's only allowed us to deepen our message and widen the outreach of it, so I rejoice in that."
The Character First! words correspond to what he deems are the 49 commands of Christ, or laws given to mankind by God. The curriculum was developed by Tom Hill, one of the Rev. Gothard's board members from 1993 to 2005.
Mr. Hill used a secularized version of the institute's character training to improve employee performance at Kimray Inc., an oil valve manufacturing company where he was president. The program spread to other companies, police departments and schools, and he incorporated his Character Training Institute, based in Oklahoma City, in 1996.
Augusta and Aiken became "character cities" in 1999 under former Augusta Mayor Bob Young and Aiken Mayor Fred Cavanaugh. North Augusta also signed on and started using the character words in 2002. Character First! is still being used in the cities' government offices and in some of Richmond and Aiken counties' schools.
Richmond County's school system paid about $105,000 for the Oklahoma City materials in three installments in 1998, 1999 and 2000, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Virginia Bradshaw said.
At Warren Road Elementary School, pupils from each class who best display the trait go to character breakfasts. Principal Connie Ryals credits Character First! for keeping discipline problems at her school low.
At a Richmond County school board meeting earlier this month, student council members from Spirit Creek Middle and A.R. Johnson and C.T. Walker magnet schools gave speeches about discretion -- "the ability to control one's actions with certain restraint."
East Aiken Elementary School's pupils put on a play each month about a character word.
At Augusta's water and sewer department's monthly meetings, employees take turns giving presentations on the virtue of the month. February's word was deference, defined as "limiting my freedom so I do not offend the tastes of those around me." Inside a bulletin is a lesson from the gray wolf -- "how deference orders and preserves the pack."
In Aiken, about 85 people, most of them city employees, have breakfast at the municipal complex each month and learn about a character word. Blue character banners are affixed to traffic signal posts downtown. They're on a different schedule in Aiken, where March's word is compassion.
"I don't hear of any fights we have among our employees," Mr. Cavanaugh said, "or people calling me saying I'm not being treated well by the department head or whoever."
Mr. Hill said he understands why some people have a problem with Character First!, but he insists there's no religious agenda.
For Dr. Berkowitz, the character education professor, words such as deference, meekness and obedience, all part of the Character First! cycle, give him pause.
"That's the antithesis of what we want in a democracy," he said.
The president of the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners in Cincinnati, suspecting an improper mix of church and state, wrote Mr. Hill a letter recently seeking an explanation. Character First! is used in schools, police and fire departments, a youth jail and youth treatment centers there.
In his reply, Mr. Hill wrote that the character words are universal, "qualities that anyone could have made."
Hard work ahead
Told about efforts to overhaul Augusta schools' character programs, Mr. Hill said that's probably easier said than done. The Character First! materials are flexible and can be used over and over again as the words circulate through multiple nine-month school years. Whether teachers use them is a matter of school leadership, not the materials themselves, he said.
"I guarantee you that if they go out and develop a whole new curriculum, it's going to cost a whole lot more than it would cost to buy the materials," Mr. Hill said. "And I have nothing to gain, because I've already sold you the materials."
Mr. Warenzak said the new model won't cost governments anything. The nonprofit has a grant writer and relies on donations.
He plans to make The Athenaum, which specializes in character education books, the hub for Augusta's Call to Character and cordon off the attached Catholic book and gift store. He wants to expand to all Augusta schools, Columbia County schools and area private schools.
"The community needs to buy into it," Mr. Warenzak said. "We're trying to show that character education is everyone's job."
Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Both Georgia and South Carolina laws say schools should focus on the following traits:
- Respect for others
- Courtesy, compassion
PEACH STATE PRIORITIES:
Georgia law says schools' character curriculums should focus on discouraging bullying and developing the specified character traits, including a few not on South Carolina's list:
- School pride
- Respect for the environment
- Respect for the creator
PALMETTO STATE PRIORITIES:
South Carolina law says school districts must, "to the extent possible," incorporate the specified traits in character education. It also lists traits Georgia does not, including:
- Respect for authority
- Good manners
- Good work ethics
- Sound educational habits
Source: Character First! character quality schedule; BillGothard.com; Georgia and South Carolina state codes
CHARACTER WORDS/COMMANDS OF CHRIST
All 49 of the Character First! words have counterparts in what evangelist Bill Gothard calls the 49 commands of Christ. His Web site pairs the commands with the character qualities below.
|CHARACTER FIRST!||COMMANDS OF CHRIST|
|Orderliness||Receive God's power (Luke 24:49)|
|Forgiveness||Forgive offenders (Matthew 18:21-22)|
|Sincerity||Be perfect (Matthew 5:48)|
|Virtue||Beware of leaven (Matthew 16:6)|
|Honor/Reverence||Honor your parents (Matthew 15:4)|
|Justice||Go to offenders (Matthew 18:15)|
|Gentleness||Love your neighbor (Matthew 22:39)|
|Faith||Practice secret disciplines (Matthew 6:1-18)|
|Responsibility||Be reconciled (Matthew 5:24-25)|
|Patience||Ask in faith (Matthew 21:21-22)|
|Initiative||Seek God's kingdom (Matthew 6:33)|
|Self-Control||Do not commit adultery (Matthew 5:29-30)|
|Punctuality||Await my return (Matthew 24:42-44)|
|Resourcefulness||Ask, seek and knock (Matthew 7:7-8)|
|Tolerance||Despise not little ones (Matthew 18:10)|
|Creativity||Love your enemies (Matthew 5:44)|
|Discretion||Do not cast pearls (Matthew 7:6)|
|Endurance||Watch and pray (Matthew 26:41)|
|Meekness||Follow me (Matthew 4:19)|
|Benevolence||Honor God's law (Matthew 5:17-18)|
|Diligence||Keep my commandments (John 14:15)|
|Loyalty||Honor marriage (Matthew 19:6)|
|Hospitality||Bring in the poor (Luke 14:12-14)|
|Sensitivity||Do unto others (Matthew 7:12)|
|Enthusiasm||Love the Lord (Matthew 22:37-38)|
|Flexibility||Make disciples (Matthew 28:20)|
|Discernment||Judge not (Matthew 7:1)|
|Cautiousness||Baptize my disciples (Matthew 28:19)|
|Boldness||Fear God, not man (Matthew 10:26)|
|Security||Be born again (John 3:7)|
|Contentment||Beware of covetousness (Luke 12:15)|
|Humility||Repent (Matthew 4:17)|
|Dependability||Feed my sheep (John 21:15-16)|
|Thoroughness||Take, eat and drink (Matthew 26:26-27)|
|Determination||Deny yourself (Luke 9:23)|
|Thriftiness||Lay up treasures (Matthew 6:19-21)|
|Availability||Be a servant (Matthew 20:26-28)|
|Deference||Go the second mile (Matthew 5:38-42)|
|Compassion||Pray for laborers (Matthew 9:38)|
|Persuasiveness||Be a house of prayer (Matthew 21:13)|
|Wisdom||Be wise as serpents (Matthew 10:16)|
|Joyfulness||Rejoice (Matthew 5:12)|
|Alertness||Beware of false prophets (Matthew 7:15)|
|Decisiveness||Choose the narrow way (Matthew 7:13-14)|
|Truthfulness||Keep your word (Matthew 5:37)|
|Obedience||Take my yoke (Matthew 11:29)|
|Gratefulness||Render to Caesar (Matthew 22:19-21)|
|Generosity||Let your light shine (Matthew 5:16)|
|Attentiveness||Hear God's voice (Matthew 11:15)|
Source: Character First! character quality schedule; BillGothard.com; Georgia and South Carolina state codes